So you’re thinking about getting a Masters of Ph.D. in engineering or science? Well, if you’re like I was, then you have heard a lot of rumors about what the whole process is about, and what you can expect out of it. In my experience, the advice floating through the halls of undergraduate universities and companies can be suspect at best, and misleading at worst. Having gone through the graduate school process recently, I would like to offer a little clarity on this oft-deliberated question. Today we are going to talk about grad school: Fact or Fiction.
The Ph.D. is just a longer version of a Masters—Fiction
Both are important, but for different reasons. In my view, the Masters degree acts as a form of continuing education for the undergraduate degree. Basically, a Masters builds on the foundation of the generalized undergrad education to give a deeper level of understanding for more current topics. The Ph.D. involves the coursework aspects of the Masters, but eventually sends the student onto a metaphorical “intellectual island” to fend for themselves in the grueling world of academic research. In order the get a Ph.D., the student is expected to make new scientific contributions to the field and publish papers in peer-reviewed journals/conferences. The Masters student can do this, but is not usually required.
Graduate courses are much more interesting than undergrad courses—Fact
Undergrad courses are boring, the problem sets are excruciating, and the grading is cut-throat. I believe this pain is intended so as to (high pass) filter the weaker students. The good news is that graduate courses are more interesting because you learn more the most modern topics and many courses are taught by the experts who are actually pushing the field to new heights—this latter fact implies that the professors tend to enjoy teaching the higher level courses, which always makes for better lectures.
Graduate courses are very difficult—Fiction
In my experience, exams and grading are much more difficult in undergraduate courses. Professors tend to treat the graduate students much more benevolently.
The Ph.D. is a waste of time—Fiction
Surprisingly, many people believe that a Ph.D. is not worth the time expense. Arguments often include the “opportunity cost” of the Ph.D.—this is the income “lost” by not working in a “real” job during those 4 or 5 years, the fact that you work on a single problem for so long and become too narrowly focuses, and the fact that you do not gain real world experience. For me, these are all red herring arguments.
First, most science Ph.D. programs pay their students monthly stipends for the work, or for TA-ing. It is not a lot of money, but it is a living wage, and not egregiously lower than an entry-level engineer with a BS. Most people in their twenties don’t have a high cost a living, anyway.
Second, while it is true that a Ph.D. covers a narrow list of topics, the breadth of knowledge required is immense. For every paper you write in grad school, I’d estimate you read hundreds of reference papers just to appreciate the “shoulders of the giants” you are standing on. After 5 years of grad school, I would guess I had read literally thousands of IEEE and OSA papers. To me, that is the opposite of being narrowly focused.
Finally, the argument that the Ph.D. process is an incubator that does not teach real world experience is horribly misled. Have you ever witnessed the political cattiness of rival professors? If not, I assure you it would make for some amazing reality TV. Just as any corporate job requires you to be aware of the politics of the office, and the inter-personal relationships of the people in your team, the Ph.D. requires you to understand that the academic process, and research in general, is a dog-eat-dog world. Make no mistake, when it comes to University level research, careers and millions of dollars are at stake, and any Ph.D. candidate can testify to this fact…tell me that’s not “real world”.
When you graduate with a Ph.D., people will respect you more—Fiction
I often tell people, “the only people who call me Dr. Marki are the ones who don’t know me.” Translation: your friends, family and colleagues couldn’t care less about the Ph.D.—I think that is a GOOD thing.
You can choose a school with a great program, or you can choose where you want to live, but not both—Mostly Fact
When I applied to grad school, I had one criterion: get back to California. Essentially, I spammed every California-based EE/ECE program I could find. I lucked out with UCSD, because San Diego is the greatest city in the country—I defy you to prove otherwise. Nevertheless, my optics professors at Duke kept telling me about the University of Rochester, because the school is well known for groundbreaking optics research. You know what I did? Ignored them. This west coast boy can’t take those upstate winters. Being from California, I was lucky because we have so many great engineering programs from which to choose, but in general, that is the exception to the rule. It is very difficult decide where you want to live, and then successfully matriculate to the perfect graduate program. You get to pick program, or location, but not both.
Besides your spouse, your Thesis Advisor is the most important personal relationship you will ever choose—Fact
This was great advice given to me by my own thesis advisor during orientation. Your thesis advisor is something akin to an adopted parent who can fire you. Choose wisely.
Your thesis topic does not matter, only that you finish—Fiction
Many people believe that your thesis topic does not matter because you will never actually work in that field after you graduate. I would be an example of one of those people, my thesis has little to do with RF/microwave engineering. However, I have come to find that the people who actually work in a field similar to their thesis often have an advantage, especially when they start companies. Jason Breitbarth at Holzworth is a prime example. Jason did his thesis work in phase noise at UC Boulder and now owns a company building low phase noise equipment. This is not surprising, building an engineering company requires unique expertise and insight that can be productized, the Ph.D. process helps you acquire such knowledge and this can help tremendously when creating new companies.
The Ivory Tower is much different from the real world—Fact
Yes, grad school teaches you real world experiences, but it is not the real world. In the real world, people don’t care nearly as much about science. This fact was very hard for me to accept when I first stepped out of UCSD and into the halls of Marki Microwave. When you are doing your Masters or Ph.D., everyone clearly cares about doing good work, exploring new areas of science or engineering, and competing for the admiration of their colleagues. In the real world, engineering or scientific achievements are often tempered by budgets, due dates, supply chain issues, economic uncertainty and office malaise. This is the inevitable trade-off when weighing whether to go to grad school: you can choose “scientific utopia” for a few years at the expense of lower pay and fierce competition, or you can choose higher pay and higher quality of life but having to accept that your contributions will often be muted by factors well beyond your control, but not both. For me, experiencing the Ivory Tower for a few years was well worth this trade.
Your thesis committee will not read your thesis—Fact
Shocking, but true! When you defend your thesis, at least one committee member will be late (they are on “professor time”, after all), at least one committee member will be checking his email, and at least one committee member will be cracking open your dissertation for the very first time. I am not kidding. The fact is that by the time you publish 3 or 4 papers in your field, you know more about the area that any of your committee members, so their job isn’t to check your work line by line, but to ensure that the work was done with a high degree scientific integrity. Good professors gain a profound intuition into the scientific process; its almost like they can smell good or bad work, without actually knowing the details.
The only people that will ever read your thesis are in your lab group—Fact
Your mom or spouse might give it a go, but they won’t get past the first few pages (unless they have a degree in your field). My thesis is posted on the Marki Microwave website, and I strongly doubt anyone has read it in firm detail.
You will sink, or you will swim—Fact